Editor’s note: This story is part of a series that focuses on homelessness on the Eastside.
Volunteers took to the streets on Jan. 27 in a county-wide effort to tally and survey the homeless — everyone from men pushing a shopping cart along the sidewalk to a mother forced to live in her car with her kids.
The guides who participated in the annual Count Us In event in the early hours of Jan. 27 were current or former homeless individuals, and were paid $15 an hour to participate.
“With homeless people, it’s ‘we’,” said one of the guides, who asked to be mentioned by her first name, Lorraine, only. “It’s a mother, it’s a son, it’s a daughter, it’s grandchildren, it’s you. It’s not just people who enjoy being out on the street.”
Lorraine was a Bellevue resident for many years, living in an apartment near the downtown area, before her mother’s health took a turn for the worse.
She lost her apartment and nearly everything she owned, and over the span of a few months, was on the street.
Now an evening client at The Sophia Way, a Bellevue women’s shelter, Lorraine spent several hours searching and counting homeless persons with two other counters in a large section of Bellevue.
Kavya Dharmarajan, development and communications director at The Sophia Way, was among the three-person search team for an area stretching from Interstate 405 to Lake Sammamish. The team received a map of the area a day prior to the count, and Dharmarajan spent the day scouting for ideas.
“The coolest part of our experience was that it was my own neighborhood,” Dharmarajan said. “I literally scouted outside of my house … I was very familiar with the neighborhood, but it was interesting to look at it in a different way than I normally would.”
Many teams on the Eastside, depending on the area they were assigned, found that vehicle residents, or “car campers,” were common.
Some search areas included known hot spots like bridges and isolated corridors, but homeless activity can be more difficult to spot in residential areas.
“Those areas don’t have the infrastructure where homeless can survive unless they have a vehicle,” Lorraine said. “Usually, there are things packed into a car with long-term homelessness. It’s easier to tell, but honestly, some have tidy (cars) and you can’t see them. Those are the exception.”
Guides led volunteers through neighborhoods and behind grocery stores, through industrial areas and down bike paths. Police and parks staff lent a hand as well, helping volunteers to spot signs of homelessness.
Several city officials, including council members from Kirkland, Redmond, Sammamish and city staff from Issaquah, participated in the count.
“It’s a visual census,” said Sara Baker, the area lead for the Eastside portion of the count. “But we use the opportunity to not just get a hard number, but also to understand ways in which people are experiencing homelessness.”